Little Black dress

On most Sunday mornings, I go to a meditation center. It’s nice to take time to go inside yourself among other people who are doing the same.

Although there is no formal dress code, it feels appropriate to dress modestly and comfortably. In other words, long skirts serve the purpose well. It seems that I have a few suitable Sunday outfits for summer but not for these transitional months.

Not one to make a sport or pastime out of shopping, recently, I decided to check out some places for a long skirt that I could wear on Sunday.

I went to The Village in my old neighborhood, my favorite resale shop. It was a Green Dot Weekend (with special discounts on items marked with a colored sticker), and it was very crowded. I didn’t stay long.

Then I went to a couple strip malls on steroids. Anchored by a major discount retailer but not as big and overwhelming as a suburban shopping center, I checked out the racks at Marshall’s.

Slim pickings, for sure; a mish mosh of new spring arrivals, warm-weather vacation getaway tops and winter items tagged for clearance.

A deal is a deal, right? After a few tours of different sections within the store, I realized that there were no long skirts to try on.

I began looking at spring tops and winter items that had been marked down. When shopping for clothes, I often employ the same strategy as I do when wine shopping. I look at the original retail price then at the discount price. I tend to look more seriously at buys that represent a good value.

When I started thumbing through the clearance items, I came across a cotton-knit black dress with three quarter sleeves. It had a high scoop neck. Except for a little flare at the bottom, it was pretty simple – well, it was plain.

OMG. $23.99

I gathered it, along with a few name brand tops and headed to the fitting room. I probably was juggling 6 hangers, just barely making the limit I could take into the fitting room at one time.

When I stopped looking for a particular thing, I SAW SO MANY THINGS THAT I WASN’T LOOKING FOR – things that maybe suited me in surprising ways.

I put a patterned long-sleeve tee and a highly reduced sheer Calvin Klein top in my TO KEEP pile.

Then I tried on the dress. It was so simple, and pretty much out of season. But it was a classic. With my natural curves and a scarf or jewelry, I could see pulling it from my closet for many occasions.

I don’t think I ever had a little black dress before, a go-to dress, and I was very happy about MY FIND.

I thought about the mental state I brought to the day’s shopping. It seemed that having a relaxed awareness rather than a single-minded focus was the key. I’m appreciative when I can slip into that space.

That I found a perfect little black dress (for $23.99, no less) is no small thing. (Okay, if I could find fashion forward shoes that don’t hurt my feet – that would be a miracle!)

The Third Bottle

I hosted book group this past Thursday.

Every 6 weeks or so, a group of my girlfriends get together to discuss a novel. Whoever picks out our book hosts the gathering and provides something to eat and yes, there’s wine (We’re girlfriends, aren’t we?).

The book I chose was a novel about a young woman with anorexia -– told from her lover’s point of view.

I made a hearty meal of daube Provencal (beef stew with, yes, more wine), a pear-gorgonzola salad, mini pastries, and freshly baked crescent rolls. Perversity rules! I wanted to enjoy simple pleasures that our book’s heroine wouldn’t allow herself.

Our group consists of four women. Occasionally, a guest will show up. Core members will often invite friends who appreciate reading and de-constructing but are reluctant to commit to showing up for every meeting.

I asked our friend, Shari, to join us. Member of another book discussion group some of us were in over 20 years ago, she had to drop out when family, moving to Munster, Indiana (40 miles away), and grad school came to demand more of her time.

Via brief emails, she warned me that she would be coming late, as she was teaching a class, but was looking forward to coming.

I opened up our first bottle of red to pour a cup into the Le Creuset enamel pot that was magically transforming cubes of everyday chuck into something special. It was a large bottle and lasted through dinner and our initial comments about the novel.

At about 7:30, when we were raising our voices about choices the author made, little things we liked about minor characters, when we thought elements were introduced in a sort of contrived way, Shari arrived. We quickly got her caught up.

A bowl of stew was filled for her, a glass of wine was poured, and everybody contributed a sentence to convey an idea that was already aired.

Shari quickly jumped in, throwing in her own comments about teaching foreign students (an experience she shared with the narrator), body image, and relationships.

We took turns, following trails of colored Post-It Notes, reading marked passages out loud.

We opened up our second bottle. In between remarks on control, intimacy, grief, illness, differences between sexes, and narrative voice, Shari declared how much she missed this kind of process and camaraderie.

When the formal discussion was over, we discussed who would host the next gathering and my lady friends started to leave.

Shari pulled out her cell phone and texted her boyfriend to come and pick her up; to leave the bar where he was killing time and actually come to my home. He picked her up from the class she was teaching and drove her to my door.

On his way over, the third bottle was opened. Shari and I talked about her children, about her teaching career, about the death of her husband four years ago, and about her new boyfriend. She confided that some of her old friends were not comfortable with him, or not comfortable with the idea of her having a new partner.

We talked about some of her challenges; going to school, raising teenagers on a modest income as a single parent, how she began seeing partnership potential with the man who would join us shortly.

We talked about some of my issues with sleep and balance, my impulse to write and my need to generate income another way.

I hadn’t talked with her in so long and, more than getting updated, it was great to be in such a non-judgmental presence.

Always uncommon, I remember her circus themed wedding that included jugglers and elephant rides, which took place in the parking lot of a forest preserve. She never worried about what others might see as odd or a contradiction.

Established as a Christian artist, she always displayed very liberal attitudes about exercising personal freedom. I would not normally see these things as going together, but they were very natural and honest expressions for her. She made no apologies about either.

A few minutes earlier, as our book discussion was drawing to a close, she reached into her purse and pulled out a salami from Hickory Farms to give to me. Not requiring refrigeration, it was in a layer of heavy-duty plastic skin, making it easy to pull off a grocery store shelf.

When it was presented to me, she laughed. We both laughed. I knew she wouldn’t be hurt if I didn’t want the cased sausage, but I understood her impulse never to go anywhere empty-handed.

After her boyfriend joined us, while we talked about hockey, her parents, and their upcoming vacation, she decided to gift me with tiny vials of essential oils, which made the trip from Indiana in her purse as well, probably next to salami. She had recently become a fan, using them for relaxation and mental clarity.

Generosity, transparency, self-acceptance, curiosity and resourcefulness, a great tenacity for solving problems tempered by respect for the mysterious, for the unknowable – Shari embodies all these things.

I think she provides a mirror for me. I can see some things in her that I can see in myself, and I can see some aspects of her character that I would like to shine through me more.

Getting to the third bottle (even if no wine is consumed), a place of complete honesty and vulnerability, is no small thing.


Art To Go

Many times, I’ve joked about a woman’s purse being one of the great mysteries of life.

Whether approaching the size of a trunk, or just a clutch, it’s always amazed me how some women can pull out just what’s needed at a particular time. That might be a safety pin or atomizer of pepper spray.

Okay, sometimes, it takes me a while to locate my key ring, but I know it’s in there, and I have an odd confidence that if I shake things up, eventually, I will hear their jingle jangle and be able to open the door in front of me.

The other day, I was fumbling around my purse, a medium sized black leather bag with a few zipper compartments. I was probably looking for a pen or for coins to satisfy my urge to offer exact change somewhere.

Instead, I came across my business cardholder. I bought it at the gift shop at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum this past November. The top of the thin metal enclosure bore a painted enamel scene of sombrero crowned hombre skeletons dancing with skirted senorita skeletons – a Day of the Dead celebration.

Since I don’t often hand out my business card, it’s an easy object to forget about. But feeling it in my hand, then taking it out of my purse and looking at it – I couldn’t help but smile.

I thought about the hours I spent with a few girlfriends at the museum, how we were moved by the many alters on display (ofrendas), how pleased I was that I introduced them to something new that they enjoyed. The cardholder was a nice keepsake of the day.

I’m not normally a big shopper. I don’t buy something just because I’ve never bought something like it before or because I’ve never bought something somewhere before.

I love beautiful objects and I understand that fashion, along with being a way to make a personal statement, is an art form. I don’t pay much attention to fashion, though. Designers are very creative people, but I tend to be more interested in what’s lasting over what is trending.

Besides, being fashionable can often represent an outlay of cash I would prefer to direct towards other things.

But I really loved this object I re-discovered at the bottom of my handbag.

I liked that it reflected a day spent at an art museum. I liked thinking that it was made, if not by an artisan, by a small shop. I liked thinking of supporting their business along with the museum’s gift shop.

I liked that the image was whimsical and that the object itself was functional. I felt it was good to have a case that protected my cards.

I liked that the image, to me, represented learning about another culture. I didn’t know what Day of the Dead was until maybe 10 years ago.

I confess I liked thinking that I had something that was unique. I couldn’t imagine going to a networking event and seeing anyone else pull out their business cards in a metal case with a rendering, in a recognized style, of skeletons dancing.

So, I had a small object — ART TO GO — that I could take with me anywhere. It was finely crafted and it represented things that were personally meaningful to me. I know I can take this cardholder out of my purse anytime and it will make me smile.

That this object is as close to me, and as easy to access, as my drivers license is no small thing.

Supersize Me

I’m not usually one to espouse the bigger is always better philosophy.

I prefer shopping at Harvestime over Costco. (I’m definitely not tempted by the idea of saving two dollars by buying 30 rolls of TP only to create a storage problem.)

I would much rather drive to a destination in sedan than an SUV no matter how many cup holders and electronic device adapters it has. I would sooner go to hear jazz in a little club than go to a stadium event where you’re lucky to see the stage (and probably have to wait in a line to pee).

I don’t know why I succumbed to the allure of a promotional mailing I got in my in email box last week, but it became high on this past weekend’s list of errands. It was for $5 off a gi-normous bag of dry dog food.

In the brand I buy, there’s a 4-pound bag and a 24-pound bag. The 24-pound bag already costs much less per ounce than the same product in a smaller package, but buying bulk is not an automatic decision for me.

I hate the thought of lugging this heavy-duty, handle-less sack that’s always changing shape up the two flights of my winding back stairs then over my kitchen threshold.

I also don’t like the idea of paying for something in advance of getting pleasure out of the purchase.

I don’t like when the Illinois Tollway wants me to prepay $40 for tolls I don’t need often. (I don’t commute to work.) Even my subscription to the symphony -– I’m very glad when I enjoy a performance, but I bristle a little bit when I have to shell out cash in June for shows I won’t see until the following April.

When shopping for myself, I worry about waste. Yes, the giant tub of yogurt costs much less per serving than the small package, but I hate pouring food down the drain or into the garbage because I can’t consume something before it becomes a science project.

I realized that I might need to look at this in an expanded way; to let go of some hard and fast rules.

I’m apprehensive about habits that encourage gluttony. If I buy more of something I use, I’m more apt to over-indulge. I’ll fill my plate at a buffet-style restaurant if only to get my money’s worth.

But I don’t want to be miserly with myself. I don’t want to get myself thinking in terms of scarcity. I don’t want to think that things need to be measured out in very deliberate portions, whatever constitutes just enough.

I know what it’s like to open my refrigerator door and see only a carton of eggs, a block of cheese, and a bottle of ketchup.

I remember when I was about to go on an extended vacation in October. I was worried about my dog’s anxiety about being abandoned (which, as a rescue pup, she’s experienced at least once). I had a conversation with a pet communicator a week before my trip.

I had her explain to India how I will be gone for 12 days, but that she shouldn’t be worried because I would come back. I wanted to let India know that I made arrangements for a friend to stay at my home. I wanted to assure her that her daily schedule shouldn’t change.

The pet communicator reported India’s response; that my friend was okay but that she would miss me. Then India asked if there would be enough food in my absence for them both.

I laughed thinking about this because it would be so like India to wonder where her next meal would come from, but I also saw it as a lesson for me – to be FLEXIBLE, not to feel bound by past decisions or rules of habit.

It was okay to SUPERSIZE my dog food purchase.

More is not always better, but not being miserly with myself is important too. I need to remember I don’t have to follow one rule.

There may be times when lugging a big bag up my stairs causes me more anxiety than the cost savings is worth. And I need to honor that feeling. But spending less money over a period of time, having ENOUGH for LONGER, has its attractions.

I need to honor my dominant feeling.

Having a whole season of kibbles in ready supply for your favorite pooch is no small thing.


Private Audience

Ah February. Although the calendar page will tell you it’s the shortest month, it can feel like the longest.

Yes, there’s the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, and, if you’re really hard up for an occasion, many people like to make a ritual observation out of the groundhog’s comings and goings. It’s a short stretch of four weeks that feels like an eternity.

For me, February is no different than every other month. I might make a pot o’ jambalaya for Fat Tuesday, but my daily life is pretty much the same as it is in September or June.

I enjoy watching the pro sports of the season on TV. I’ll pick up a book to read, and I’ll take walks with my dog.

I’m always on the lookout to fulfill one of my personal lifestyle goals — to see live music a couple times a month. When going to an outdoor concert is not an option, and I don’t want to hang out in a bar, this can be more challenging.

On the east side of Francisco, there’s an adorable collection of storefronts. It includes a dry cleaner, a beauty parlor, a neighborhood attorney’s office, the First Slice bakery and café, Le Petit Ballet Studio and Narloch Piano Studio, where private lessons are given.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking India, I looked at a couple handmade posters in the window of the piano studio. They were advertising a Friday night recital. It featured a youngish performer with an impressive resume. It was planned to be just over one hour and only cost $15.00.

The poster mentioned the composer and pieces slated for the upcoming Friday performance. Bach’s Italian Concerto, Beethoven’s Pathetique, and something by Schumann. Right away, I knew I had to go.

I asked a few friends to join me but was happy enough to go alone. The studio was only a five-minute walk from my home.

A small standing sign was placed in front of the studio. SHOW TONIGHT. At only fifteen minutes to show time, I seemed to be the first to arrive. There were cookies placed on a table at the back of the studio for after the show.

I liked looking at the walls. They were decorated like a bulletin board outside of a principal’s office in an elementary school. There were colored marker drawings of Mozart and Bartok and other composers with fun historical facts about their lives, contributed, I assume by young students.

The owner of the studio and the soloist, an attractive twenty-something year old- woman, sat in the back. There were maybe 25 or 30 chairs set up in a few rows and along the wall leading to the door.

The soloist wore gloves to keep her hands warm. A shiny black grand piano occupied the front of the studio.

At 7:55, the place just filled up. Local music lovers ended up occupying almost the exact number of chairs that were set out.

I had never been to a performance at the studio before, but it was clear that the other concertgoers knew the drill. A small metal cash box was placed near the front door. Everyone handled their monetary transaction themselves.

The soloist was very good. Each piece was memorized and a lot of attention was given to dynamics, to the subtle and grander changes in volume and mood.

I loved the music, but I really loved experiencing the music in this venue.

It was INTIMATE. And isn’t that what classical music is about? In a very small room, on a beautiful instrument, the nuances of each composition and the soloist’s personal rendering of them, felt like they were emanating from inside of me.

I got to see my neighbors’ faces. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone, I liked knowing that people living only blocks away from me would come to a local piano studio on a Friday night. I got to thank the performer personally for a great performance.

I really found the whole evening especially beautiful. It was so quiet in the room. The sound of the piano was the only thing that was audible.

I couldn’t hear the sounds of candy wrappers or rustling programs or latecomers taking their seats. I could only hear notes from the piano…and the silence in between the notes.

Hearing the silence between the notes is no small thing.

Special Events

People have different notions of what constitutes a special event.

There are birthdays and anniversaries; comeback tours of aging rock stars we grew up with (compelling you to buy a keepsake tee).

Many people celebrate Valentine’s Day this week. And recently, business pundits and various news sources made a small fuss about the Dow Jones average going over 20,000.

Generally, we think of special events through a very personal lens. Something is SPECIAL mostly because of its personal significance to YOU.

But what about special events for the EARTH? For the universe?

Friday night, at around 9:00 in the evening, as I walked through nearby Ravenswood Manor Park, I looked up at the moon.

I heard that a snow moon was going to be in the night sky and that a lunar eclipse was going to take place.

Yesterday, I looked up the date in the Farmers Almanac. The date was tagged to host a full Snow Moon (name originating from Native Americans reference to the time of year with heaviest snows), a penumbral eclipse (which takes place in the moon orbit’s outer shadow), and the closest passing of Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková in a generation.

Trifecta! Talk about special! A penumbral eclipse will only occur five times this century.

I’m of two different minds when it comes to thinking of an experience as SPECIAL.

Part of me thinks that fully appreciating what is happening in the moment is the feeling you aspire to when experiencing a special event. Looking down from an overpass and marveling at how traffic flows or noticing where birds like to rest can fill me with an unexpected sort of contentment.

In other words, I don’t need for a rare event to take place to have this feeling.

On the other hand, I like to attach significance to things. I like to make things personal.

I really enjoyed walking around Ravenswood Manor Park Friday night before the sky clouded up. I wasn’t able to see the eclipse or the comet that night, but the MOON was MAGNIFICENT!

I liked knowing that it was an event of some historic significance. I liked that my curiosity was aroused and I followed up by trying to learn more.

But I mostly liked walking under the moon. I liked thinking that it is always there. It doesn’t change, but how it is seen changes.

I liked thinking that it has been a guide to give people direction at night forever. I like that is in relationship with the tide – with the flow of water, with the flow of life even though it is nowhere near an ocean.

I liked thinking that it has inspired many songs and poems. It symbolizes many things for me; the shadow side of things – contrast, in general; how important it is to see something while considering what it is not.

So walking under the full moon Friday night was special — from the universe’s perspective and from mine.

It was unusual to have three astronomical events happen at the same time. And the vision of the moon — its fullness, the glow, the subtle ring that seemed to embrace it — made me feel indescribably happy.

Feeling connected to EVERYTHING, while taking one step at a time, is no small thing.

Blue Skies


When I headed out to walk India the other morning, I was amazed by the blueness of the sky.

Chicago is not known for its sunny days, but sometimes, you don’t realize how wonderful something is – until you miss it.

Even though this winter has not been unduly harsh in temperature, after a chain of overcast days, I couldn’t help but notice how different my mood was when I felt directly connected to the sun, under a cover of blue. A few wisps of clouds only added to the blessing by establishing a little contrast.

I felt more energetic and optimistic. I found myself more willing to be spontaneous and adventurous. I seemed content to be alone, less eager for the distraction of a television or computer screen.

Even if I didn’t want to be outside, I didn’t want to lose sight of the amazing blue sky.

I think other people felt the same way.

In short interactions with store clerks or crossing guards or doormen – they all seemed especially upbeat and helpful.

It’s not just the sunshine that people respond to. I’m convinced that it’s the color blue itself. Indigo, periwinkle , cobalt, sapphire -– there are mane shades of blue in the spectrum. Everyone knows what SKY BLUE looks like.

I noodled around online for qualities and psychological associations with the color.














It has been said that the color represents confidence, in a non-threatening way, as in CALM AUTHORITY

The color is also associated with safety and trust.

It is universally liked. There are people whose favorite color might be red or green and other people who might be just as passionate in their dislike, but no one hates blue. It is universally liked.

I tried to understand the effect of the blue sky on my own mood and outlook. I had to think about horizons; how when you look out at a body of water, the blueness of the ocean merges with the sky. Or, if you see a mountain, the only thing bigger is the sky over it.

When I see blue, I think FOREVER. INFINITY. Rather than being overwhelmed by this, I feel comforted.

I have to refer to the classic tune. (Thanks, Mr. Berlin)

Blue skies smilin’ at me
Nothing but blue skies, do I see
Blue days all of them gone
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on…

Being buoyed by the vastness, the FOREVER-NESS of the sky is no small thing.


Radio Days

Saturday, I ran a bunch of errands. I’d like to take credit for the efficiency at which I executed them, but I almost seemed to be on autopilot. As I drove west, I seemed to be programmed to turn into a driveway every ¼ mile or so.

I put gas in my car. I bought a new bath rug at Bed, Bath & Beyond (and even remembered to take one of their coupons with me). I stopped at Pet Supplies and bought a multi-week supply of kibbles for India. I stopped at Harvestime and stocked up on produce and other essentials.

I almost get tired now thinking about my route.

And in between all my stops, I flicked the car radio on. I confess that turning the radio on as soon as I get behind the wheel is almost as automatic as buckling up.

I listened to a few favorite shows on NPR.

Between the Mobil on Crawford and the strip mall where I bought discount salon shampoo and checked out bathroom rugs, I caught the end of Moth Radio, a re-broadcast of live storytelling events that are held in cities across the country.

A featured story was delivered by a thirty-something, recounting how, as a young landlord, he discovered a renter that he decided he had to let go taking the refrigerator with him. Very funny and very real.

Before I hit the grocery store I listened to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Recorded here in Chicago most Saturday mornings, host Peter Sagal tests minor celebrities on some arcane bit of cultural trivia. This past Saturday, his guests, who recently released the hip-hop album, Run the Jewels, were asked questions about rabbis. (A twisted play on Running the Jews…)


I caught some music from a bygone era on XRT’s Saturday Morning Flashback, where all selections come from a particular year, and I found myself totally entranced by a Ted Talks show, which focused on our culture’s relationship with screens and how they’re changing our lives.

I remember leaving the car’s engine on, sitting in my car and listening to the segment for several minutes after I arrived at my destination.

I might be very old school, but I really like listening to THE RADIO.

I like the intimacy of it. No matter what goes into production, I focus on the human voice. I feel like I’ve come to know DJs on favorite stations. They feel like friends.

I like the live nature of it. I know that each song or interview is planned, but it feels like it is coming to me fresh.

Just like I prefer perusing a printed newspaper instead of pre-selecting online stories, I like listening to radio the same way. I welcome the possibility of being introduced to something I might find especially compelling that I didn’t know to look for.

I like the randomness of music that might flow to me instead of compiling a playlist. Perhaps a memory will be more vivid to me at some point in the future because I’ll associate an event or experience with the unexpected tune I noticed playing on the radio at the time.

In a world of controlled and documented events, I like to be SURPRISED.

Spending a day with the ever-new and oh so familiar companionship of the radio is no small thing.



I got to the el station to head downtown to join the rally and march before 9:00 AM. It was easy to spot others with the same destination.

Quite a few wore pink knit “pussy” hats. Many of them carried signs.

I joked with a few ladies while we waited for the next train.

“I couldn’t bear to watch the TV during the inauguration yesterday,” I confessed. “I had root canal done.”

The information was true enough. I spent a good part of the previous morning with an endodontic specialist. The implication in my statement, though, was that I would rather have painful dental work than see the man I’ve come to refer to as the NIC (Narcissist In Chief) put his hand on Lincoln’s bible and take the oath of office.

The train car was filled to capacity within two stops of where I got on, and I am only 3 stops form the end of the line. There were young women and old hippies, gangs of gal pals and feminists of all sexes. Quite a few families made a special outing out of the occasion.

The crowds on the street were huge.   After I got home later in the day, I Googled crowd estimates. Maybe 250,000 showed up for the Women’s March in Chicago on an unseasonably warm January afternoon.

Through my post-march web surfing, I took note that there were over 150 marches around the world. People in London, Paris, Madrid, Sydney, New Delhi, and Manila (among other locations) marched in solidarity.

Led by the idea that women’s rights are synonymous with human rights, other causes seemed to align perfectly. Everything comes down to mutual respect and kindness, doesn’t it?

Along with throngs of people disembarking from trains, buses and cars, I was guided to a bridge (on Van Buren or Balbo) because there was no more room at the publicized staging area. Here, we waited until the foot traffic (the marchers) started moving.

We couldn’t hear any of the speeches from where we were…but we smiled at each other. We were glad we came.

After 90 minutes of watching the crowd expand like lungs filling up with fresh air, we started moving along a planned route. The marching route was supposed to end with a rally at the federal plaza, but this had to be canceled.  The crowd was too large to assemble there.

Very deliberately and peaceably we started to go west where we made a right turn at Wabash Avenue. A loud rhythmic chant seemed to rise up spontaneously, not amplified but very strong.

NO HATE. NO FEAR. EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE. As we marched north, it was hard not to notice Trump Tower in the distance.

Under the shadow of the el train, just beginning to realize how large a group we were, we broke into THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE. Our voices drowned out the sound of trains rumbling overhead.

Everyone had their cellphones out to snap pictures of the signs. We all wanted to remember this personally inspiring and historic day.

Looking at all the signs felt like getting to know everyone as individuals.


Other signs reflected the intergenerational aspect of the experience. Young girls, who probably hadn’t yet mastered large-scale printing, held up hand-drawn pictures of roaring grizzly bears, in homage to Helen Reddy’s classic song, “I Am Woman. Hear me Roar.

I came across a ten-year old boy, carrying a dark sign, lettered in gold marker. I AM MARCHING FOR MY MOTHER. (MY BABY SITTER, I’M NOT TOO CRAZY ABOUT).

Some slogans were tongue in cheek and political. Riffing off the THANKS OBAMA video which went viral showing Obama unable to dunk a large cookie in a narrow glass of milk, a visual metaphor for how he was often blamed for anything that was wrong, even things out of his scope, I saw a THANKS PUTIN sign.

Eerily representing the state of news reporting, referring to the size of the crowd, another sign read FOX NEWS WILL LIE ABOUT THIS.


Whether on the ground marching alongside of each other or from above – We were beautiful!

Making a quick stop at Walgreens to buy poster board and a Sharpie to express yourself before meeting up with 250,000 other souls who want to show up in the world is no small thing.











The Ninth Candle

I really enjoy visiting my Orthodox Jewish friends during the holidays. I refer to my parents as Lox ‘n’ Bagel Jews because, for them, practicing Judaism revolved around attending secular humanist lectures at our temple and eating foods favored by other Members of the Tribe.

It feels fresh and especially sweet to me to take part in Jewish traditions that are carried out with great heart and respect.

Just a few weeks ago, I was a dinner guest at my friend’s Hanukah (or do you say Chanukka?) celebration. Each guest was allowed to light their own menorah. The latkes were homemade (not from Trader Joe’s) and philosophical repartee was flowing.

I’m so appreciative of how my hosts welcome friends into their home; how they encourage me to take part in the rituals without making me feel stupid or ashamed because I don’t speak Hebrew and am only loosely familiar with the prayers.

I loved watching the candles’ flames from my menorah blazing alongside of the lights from other menorahs.

When there was a break in the eating (Did I mention the hostess made jelly-filled donuts?), our table leader asked everyone if we would weigh in on our understanding of the significance of the holiday.

After invoking a favorite explanation from Austrian Jewish actor Theodore Bickel (“We won. They lost. Let’s eat!”), we went around the room contributing our own commentary on the significance of the historical events that spawned the celebration.

After sharing what we all learned in Sunday school, about how the a small band of Israeli soldiers, the Maccabees (think Special Forces), beat a larger and much better resourced army and how a small supply of oil that was meant to provide light for one day actually lasted for eight days, the host proposed that the primary theme of the holiday was little vs. big.

This compelled many around the table to draw parallels to the continued position of Israel, a country trying to survive in a world of much bigger Arab states. Many guests not only saw Israel as Little in a world of Big, they declared Israel to be GOOD amid a sea of EVIL

Some guests strongly condemned the US for not supporting Israel’s policy of building new developments in a geography, which could turn into a home for Palestinians.

A few guests, including me, were taken aback by how this celebration turned into a political forum.

One guest brought up that she was uncomfortable that dinner table talk turned in this direction. She also pointed out that we need to remember multiple sides to the situation, how the Palestinians have also occupied this space for many years and how important having a home is to them, something Israelis should certainly understand.

Before I left my friends’ house, I thanked the host for inviting me and expressed how moved I was by seeing the flames of the many menorahs. I thought about how, together, they formed one great light. I wanted the ritual of lighting one more flame each night to go on forever. I remember saying something about wanting to be the 9th candle.

In another nod to the theme of big and little, I was drawn to think about distinctions in size; how to any one individual, degree is not so important. I want to remember not to stop acting from my heart because I’m locked in to the idea that my actions alone are not significant.

I want to act from my heart in all things. My declaration came from wanting to add light in the world, no matter the amount.

In the following days, I kept thinking about big and little and how upset I was by the discussion turning political

It’s almost reflexive that a group of people, especially one with a history such as the Jews, would see the world as us vs. them. It’s understandable to be concerned with survival of your heritage.

I also think that everyone is being called on now to be BIGGER than they might have been in the past; to remember what we all have in common and think less in terms of us vs. them.

Don’t we all want our families to have a home?  Don’t we all want to pursue our individual talents and feel secure that we can enjoy the fruits of our labor?

I hope that Jews and non-Jews can move towards identifying with their BIGGER selves and with the whole of humanity.

Being able to celebrate your traditions and culture but not letting history confine you is no small thing.

White Christmas

Some families make a yearly ritual out of dragging home a Frazier Fir from a parking lot/temporary nursery. Many mother-daughter duos go into a cookie baking frenzy that would put Pepperidge Farm to shame.

My annual Christmas tradition involves going to the Music Box Theatre for their annual Christmas show.

For two weeks leading up to the 25th, they offer a double feature consisting of Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life and the very camp musical, White Christmas starring crooner Big Crosby and childhood favorite funnyman, Danny Kaye.

Anchored by a sing-along with Santa and house organist, even a Grinch couldn’t help but break into a smile. I usually skip It’s a Wonderful Life (content to view one of its many airings on TV) and come out with a group of friends for White Christmas (and the sing-along).

I’ve been observing this tradition for around fifteen years.

I’m always amazed by how tiny Vera Ellen’s waist is, shown off in many of the dance numbers. I think about Rosemary Clooney’s connection to heart throb George Clooney. I never fail to laugh at the line housekeeper Emma says in reference to her job for Major General Tom Waverly; that she alone could do the job previously performed by 15,000 men -– even though I’ve heard the line dozens of times.

Going to the Music Box for White Christmas…It’s so familiar. I know almost every line. But it’s never boring.

I like to introduce new people to this cherished tradition.  It helps keep the tradition fresh.

My friend Holly fist introduced me to White Christmas at the Music Box years ago. We now wear our red Santa hats or reindeer headbands and try to invite another friend who has never been before.

Over the years, I’ve brought along, Susan C. and Nancy R. and Sandy and Rob and others. My pleasure seems to be enhanced by thinking that my friends are having a memorable first time experience.

During some of the musical numbers or audience participation parts (like when an over-served audience member makes a ba-a-a-ah bleating sound during the Crosby-Clooney lyric “When I’m worried and cannot sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep…”), I’ll catch myself looking down the row to catch the expression of the White Christmas newbie I brought.

I try to remember my own first time.

I want them to love the tradition as much as I do. It’s not just about the movie, which features great songs and dances and the wonderful irony of a nice Jewish boy from New York, Irving Berlin, creating one of most beloved Christmas songs. It’s about being in a large auditorium where EVERYONE is practicing their own family ritual within a bigger one.

I can make out groups of people who BELONG to each other. Groups of individuals will be dressed as elves, or WWII soldiers, or reindeer, or decked out in some costume from the movie.

And doesn’t that reflect a bigger story; that within our tribe, we belong to a larger family?

We all know the lyrics to fuller or lesser degrees. We all forget lines and can’t get others out of our heads.

After having such a good time, many of us will think about who we can invite next year.

Sharing a tradition with your peeps and inviting new people to share something you love in the company of others doing the same is no small thing.


Midnight Circus

midnight-circusLight and fluffy snowflakes are coming down. I hear the sound of my neighbor running a shovel blade across the walk. I have food in the fridge and nowhere I have to be.

Here, at home, life seems very peaceful. Inside the snow globe, the movements of the world seem like MAGIC.

At this time of year, TV commercials show new luxury cars tied up in red bows sitting on suburban driveways, sending sparks of glee to the lucky family who unties the ribbon and enjoys keyless entry and the envy of their neighbors (at low monthly rates).

This image is supposed to convey the MAGIC of the season.

But I have another recent memory of magic, one that is far simpler and feels far truer.

Back in October, I went to see The Midnight Circus, at nearby Welles Park. During the summer months, The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre stages productions of the Bard’s works in neighborhood parks.

During September and October, The Midnight Circus sets up its tent, and parks its popcorn machine in many of the same parks.

I had no recent experience of going to the circus. I remember when I was around four, my father pulled some strings to get front row seats to the Ringling Brothers Circus.

My sister, who was only one year older, and I got upset and scared by the humongous elephants. And when the clowns (face it, clowns are pretty scary) pulled a stunt where they pretended to set their hair on fire — well, we screamed so loudly, that our poor father had to take us home.

The Midnight Circus was a much tamer affair. The largest animals they had were dogs no bigger than a Cocker Doodle. There was a high wire act, but the wire was about as high as a basketball net.

The circus troop consisted all of young people, spanning in age from ten to twenty-five. Mostly acrobats and jugglers, they wore tight fitting and colorful outfits and moved with energy and grace.

There was no balding middle-aged ringmaster in a top hat and red jacket with gold epaulets. And thankfully, there were no scary clowns.

A very eclectic range of music was amplified and, except for one intermission, there was no stoppage. I watched a constant flow of acts.

A young girl dangled from the top of the tent on a large swatch of purple cloth, arranging her Gumby doll-like body into configurations I didn’t think possible.

A teenage couple leapt and danced across a wire, stepping through hoops and tossing each other different objects from opposite ends.

There were comical chase scenes and dancing segments featuring the whole ensemble. Two hours of non-stop entertainment. In my little neighborhood. UNDER THE BIG TOP.

I enjoyed the skill and simple beauty of human bodies in motion, but there was another element that was MAGICAL to me.

As I looked around the crowd, maybe around two hundred in total, all sitting on benches, arranged in tiered circles, everybody’s eyes were on the performers. There were families with young children and twenty-somethings on dates. All ages were represented – and nowhere did I see the glow of a smart phone.

This shouldn’t be so rare, but I’ve been to too many concerts and too many nice restaurants where it seemed that the main attraction was texting cryptic conversations with people who were not around.

Here, people were sharing an actual experience in real time. They were seeing the same thing at the same time and fed off of everyone else’s awe and delight. Everyone together under the big top. To me, this was magic.

Enjoying entertainment with friends and neighbors – in the moment — is no small thing.

Funny AND Poignant

make-tacosPretty much every year, I visit the Day of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of a public exhibition being held in Chicago. The theme for this year’s exhibition was Dia de los Muertos: Journey of the Soul.

There’s a longstanding Mexican tradition of honoring deceased loved ones by building and decorating altars that reflect their individual lives. That each altar finds a way to penetrate the hearts of total strangers is a testament to shared experience.

Like art, in general, the more personal a display is, the more universal it feels to someone taking it in.

Far from morbid, in showcasing the deceased’s guitars or family photos, favorite foods, things they made, or pictures of celebrity crushes, it feels like a very authentic way to cherish a life.

Unlike Halloween, which is mostly about candy and originality in costumes, the November 1st holiday is for giving each soul a time for remembrance and respect befitting the human life they lived.

In altars and collections of objects curated very thoughtfully and assembled with great care, I’m always struck by the LOVE that’s present.

It’s easy to think that an individual life does not matter much – not in the grand scheme of things –- then walking through an exhibit such as this reminds me that so much love is created around each person’s life and the connections he makes.

Oh, there were some wonderful displays. There was a great textile of an androgynous looking male Tejano singer who crossed the border illegally and managed to create quite a following in his short life.

I lingered on the offendres (offerings) on display for a Chicago cop who gave his life in the line of duty. Accompanying the memorabilia showing him as a family man were accessories for his uniform, which, he was most certainly proud to wear.

I love the museum itself, comparatively small in a city of museums, but somehow always managing to be fresh and familiar at the same time.

I love the Lady of Guadalupe renderings, the divine feminine having such an important place in the culture, and I’m usually affected by the political or social angle of current murals and installations.

After I finished walking through The Day of the Dead: Journey of the Soul exhibit, I walked around other collections at the museum. I did a double take when I saw a simple neon lighted sign above an archway.


At first I laughed at the twist on the “Make love not war” theme. Then I thought about the sadness that settled over me after the presidential election results were announced.

Since November 9th, I have been in such a high level of disbelief and anxiety about the Bully in Chief assuming the position of such a great influence in the world — over my life.

I thought about Herr Trump’s vow to build a wall between the US and Mexico. What an absurd idea! We need to be more connected to our hearts, not cut off from a culture that reminds us to feel, to remember our humanity.

Was it possible that such a simple message could be funny and so poignant at the same time?

Perhaps that’s a special power of art, too, that apparent opposites can occupy the same space in your thoughts.

Laughing and crying with the same breath is no small thing.

Fatima’s Living Room

deb-at-fatimasOver the past few days, I’ve been working on organizing my photos from my trip to Portugal. I’m trying to pare down approximately 300 images to around 75 that I can caption and make into a slide show.

Although I might take pics of statues (lots of men on horses), colorful laundry hanging from second floor balconies along narrow streets (something I don’t see in my neighborhood) and bridges named after political events that only have a local meaning, I choose images that trigger stories. I pick photos that stir memories.

When I observed myself creating my digital scrapbook, I came to a realization.

I travel so that I can feel AT HOME.

I want to feel I can be myself all the time. I want to feel at ease. I want to feel I belong. To me, that’s feeling AT HOME. What could be greater than to feel at home anywhere in the world?

When Nancy and I were in Coimbra, one of the world’s original college towns (boasting a tradition of young troubadours and a 300 year-old library), we ended up spending a few hours in Fatima’s living room.

We were off the Rick Steves’ suggested walking tour, for sure, and yet had not completely gotten into the mindset of letting things flow to us. We were searching for sardines.

We had spent most of the day, walking up and down hills, checking out artifacts at the history-rich university, and buying some souvenirs to take home. Perhaps we weren’t ready for dinner, but, as it was about 5:00, snacks and some wine or beer seemed to be in order.

Although we were told sardines were out of season, we thought fresh grilled sardines had to be part of our eating adventure. (Perhaps we had seen too many posters of happy Portuguese fishermen with their nets full).

We had been pretty successful finding great eateries by simply walking down streets in areas where cafes were abundant and looking at menu boards. But no restaurant seemed to have grilled sardines listed as a dinner special.

We started walking into restaurants that looked nice and asking the hostess if they knew of any place where we could get some sardines. Eventually, someone pointed to a spot down the alley. Not marked by a sign, there were a few men milling about at a doorway, so we were pretty sure something was there.

The hostess said, “I think Fatima opened up a restaurant a few weeks ago. She might have sardines.”

So we walked through the doorway near where we saw the handful of workingmen standing. It seemed to be someone’s living room. There was a couch and some bookshelves. A few tables and chairs were arranged. There was an informal curtain partition between the sitting area and the kitchen.

Apparently Fatima was a young single mother. She was a gregarious sort and decided to open a restaurant from her home, which was only open when she returned from her day job. A good way to make a little extra money.

She had no menus. She just exuded warmth and welcome. She passed out business cards and expressed her wish that we might tell our friends or write something about our visit on Trip Advisor.

She didn’t have sardines, but with the information that we wanted a snack and wanted to unwind from the day, she brought us cold meats and cheeses, cubes of hearty bread, and a couple of local beers. It was perfect.

We noticed her 10-year old daughter hanging out the couch enjoying the parade of regulars spending a few hours before heading to their own homes. A table of men sat nearby us, eating sandwiches, drinking beer, and laughing.

We struck up a conversation with a tall, middle-aged man who sat alone, but like Norm from the Cheers basement bar, he felt he was with family around Fatima and whoever found their way there. He was slowly consuming a carafe of white wine, happy just to hang out.

He spoke English and, upon learning where we were from, volunteered that he liked Obama and was a bit worried about the upcoming election. He told us where he liked to vacation.

We enjoyed Fatima’s good nature and hospitality and left amazed by our experience of connection.

Oddly, this was one of my favorite experiences in the land of explorers.

Spending a few hours, feeling at home, in a stranger’s (new friend’s) living room is no small thing.

Black Pig

black-pigAfter returning from my excursion to Portugal, friends have commented on my appearance. They’ve told me that I looked good.

Very subtle changes may have been set in motion. Maybe I’m more relaxed. I don’t know. I want to chalk it up to the BLACK PIG phenomenon.

The second night Nancy, my travel buddy, and I were in Porto, we looked at a list of restaurants our Air BnB host left for us.

All within walking distance, we picked out Tabua Rasa, on Rua Picaria, which specialized in traditionally cured meats and very local wines. The wines came from the nearby Douro Valley where we spent our day visiting wineries and tasting ports.

The restaurant was a small storefront with no ovens and no grills. Their philosophy was that the quality of their fare spoke for itself. They didn’t make fussy presentations or sauce things. They served simple meats and cheeses of the highest quality.

After we sat down and looked at their English language menu, my eyes caught sight of one of their specials, and I said the name of the dish out loud, almost surprising myself.


Perhaps, it should not been a surprise that they’d have this. After all, they focused on local favorites. But we were not thinking about it specifically while we meandered down stone and brick roads, looking in shop windows at dusk.

We heard about black pig from several sources throughout our trip; from our guide in Evora, from a waiter in Lisbon, and from the day’s winery tour driver.

We were told that the black pig was special in Portugal, that the pig itself was black (not pink) and that, as it is fed on acorns from oak trees, it’s extra succulent and juicy. We were told it was not to be missed.

Early in our travels, we seemed to be on the lookout for it.

Of course, we didn’t have a chance to sample any until only a few days before we left the country. By this time, we had STOPPED LOOKING.

I read the menu item out loud because I was surprised. I had stopped looking for it… And then I found it.

Why, I believe, the local delicacy was suddenly available is — why many things happen – it’s their time.

I had let life come to me.

This is maybe one of the most wondrous things about adventure travel, about vacation in general.

It’s not about where you go, or what you see. It’s not about checking off the starred entries listed in your Frommer’s or Lonely Planet. It’s about having an adventurous state of mind.

It’s about knowing that everything you experience is full of possibilities. You don’t have to have one thing, and only that thing, in order to be happy. More things seem to happen when you see blessings in everything or, at least, see the possibilities in everything.

The best outcome of living this way is that things seem to come to you more often when you let go of making them happen. Even if your wish list item doesn’t come to you, you tend to look at everything that lands in front of you with a great curiosity and appreciation for its uniqueness.

The willingness to be surprised is highly undervalued.

Seeing a desired experience come to you after letting go of trying to manifest it, seeing an option present itself in the flow of your life, like seeing a menu item in a randomly chosen eatery, making you call out BLACK PIG, is no small thing.


Remembering the Words

fado-singer-in-coimbraOne of my priorities for my trip to Portugal was to hear Fado as often as possible.

Popularized in the early 20th century, in Lisbon, Fado songs can be about anything but are usually composed in minor keys and capture a feeling of longing.

There are contemporary Fado singers, fadistas, and songs can be performed with accompaniment or not. Remarkably, even rock star, slickly produced performers take the tradition seriously. There’s a sort of universality and timelessness about a man or woman capturing their yearnings in a song.

On my first night in Lisbon, walking around the Alfama, a man, who was promoting a restaurant and club, approached us. After listening to his pitch, Midwestern skeptics that we were, we excused ourselves and walked on.

Not having a better idea where to go, we came back and let him lead us to a small restaurant and club down a narrow street just off the main drag.

They had a limited menu, although very good cod (the specialty of the region), and they served food and drink in between short sets. Four different fadistas visited the club during the evening, sang a selection of songs, accompanied by two house guitarists, then went to other supper clubs where, I assume, they did the same.

We went to another supper club two days later, in the Chiado district, where the food and music were higher quality – at a much higher cost.

A couple days later, we were in Coimbra, where I had been forewarned that Fado was different than it was in Lisbon. Following their local tradition, where Fado was sung by male university students to the women they wanted to woo, only men sang.

After catching touristy shows at Casa de Fado and Fado ao Centro, at a local diner where we lunched on piglet and potato chips, we were directed to visit Bar Diligencia (which roughly translates to stagecoach).

No cover charge. Cheap drinks. No one shows up until 10:00. Ah, the real deal!

The singer, a bearded young man, who looked like he could have been a college student anywhere in the world, sat on a chair and alternated between two different guitars. There were only about eight people in the bar. The manager spoke good English and was very welcoming.

The Fadista sang a few traditional tunes. In between which, he asked members of his audience where they were from. Although our shoes probably gave our origin away, he seemed happy when we said Chicago, the U.S.

In his second set, he asked the audience if we knew Pink Floyd. Well, of course. I was surprised by the question. What did Pink Floyd have to do with Fado? I expected that he was preparing us for an audience participation bit in the song, but I didn’t know what song he was preparing us for.

Then he tore into the most beautiful acoustic version of Wish You Were Here that I had ever heard. Then it dawned on me.

What could capture the spirit of Fado more? What song could top this one for expressing pure longing? WISH YOU WERE HERE……

I considered my own longings. It seems that I’ve spent most of my life trying to find my voice; to find an audience and be heard. I’ve looked for opportunities to make my feelings known through writing.

But many times I’ve had problems speaking up within relationships. Or, when given the opportunity to make a point in a discussion, I couldn’t get the words out. I was afraid of saying things wrong or of not being understood.

And here I was – at Bar Diligencia – in a tavern, in Coimbra, Portugal, and I knew what was coming. Although I would never see anyone else in the audience again, I knew that the singer would lead everyone up to a certain point in the lyrics and go silent expecting everyone who knew Pink Floyd would take over.

For a few moments, I worried if I’d remember the words, but when the performer stopped singing and played guitar for everyone else to fill in the words, I belted out the phrase.

Like two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl – year after year.

Wow, I felt like a fadista. Suddenly, I was unafraid of my longing being heard. In fact, it was celebrated. It was shared.

Remembering the words to a song (and giving those words voice) is no small thing.

Blanche DuBois Does Portugal

alley-in-alfamaMaybe Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar heroine was on the right track when she said, “I’ve always been indebted to the kindness of strangers.”

Indebtedness is not quite the right descriptor for those brief encounters with strangers a traveler seems to invite, but it is a special type of gratitude.

So often, a tourist, as a foreigner to a new place, comes across unexpected challenges and help seems to be provided, as if magically, from unforeseen sources; from people with no prior relationship.

Yes, there are nice people who man tourist information kiosks near the train station or town’s main square. They’ll provide directions or recommendations on restaurants or neighborhoods to visit. They can tell you how to operate the machines that dispense fare cards for the subway…But that’s their job.

Traveling seems to create extra opportunities to interact with people outside of your established circle and get help from people where it’s not a requirement of their job. As a traveler, you need extra help. When you’re far from home, it’s understandable that most of the people you come in contact with are strangers.

These strangers have no vested interest in giving you attention or in satisfying your needs. Maybe you’re more vulnerable than usual. These two circumstances combine to create something special.

It’s a very basic and pure kind of human interaction. Everyone knows what it’s like to need help.

People also like to give help – when they can; when the action that seems to be called for is something they can do.

My friend Nancy and I just came back from Portugal. We had done research, using guidebooks and online resources for weeks and months leading up to the trip (God bless Rick Steves and Trip Advisor).

We also tried to get the skinny from friends who had their passports stamped there and we did a lot of things by feel. We took on traveling with what we thought to be a good balance between a healthy spirit of adventure and sound judgment.

I knew I wanted to stay in the Alfama district of Lisbon because it was old and had a lot of character. Full of narrow, winding streets, it seemed like a great place to wander and just see LIFE HAPPENING. This always appealed to me.

Lilliana and Bruno, our Air BnB hosts, gave us directions on how to get to their apartment from the Santa Apolonia Metro stop. We had a little challenge finding their street (or should I say vertical alley?) but we figured things out. Their place was close to the Fado Museum.

After picking up the apartment keys from a café two flights up, we learned that our building was an additional couple flights up and that the apartment itself was two more stairways up from the building’s entranceway. The casters at the bottom of our suitcases, so good for traveling through an airport, was no help here.

Pausing to rest after only a few stairs, we were spotted by two couples, also tourists. They saw us struggling, and the two men picked up our suitcases and, following instructions, deposited them at our doorway.

No extra words were exchanged. I think that they were happy that they were able to help (I suspect they were also happy that their good deed didn’t involve playing Sherpa any longer). They appeared just when we needed help — and disappeared just as quickly.

Later that afternoon, we trekked up through more windy streets towards Sao Jorge’s Castle. Even without the burden of rolling suitcases and loaded backpacks, the route was not easy.   Our map didn’t show the names of all the streets and the incline was steep for us being used to the flatlands of Illinois.

Unsolicited, a local came up to us and, in perfect English, told us to take the 737 mini-bus up to the castle and back to the Alfama. Free with the Lisbon Card we had already purchased.

Two nights later, a tavern/restaurant manager kept his kitchen open a little later than usual when we arrived hungry after their normal dinner hour. Nancy and I shared a wonderful braised pork dish and charcuterie and received a colorful lecture from the waiter on local craft beers and Portuguese history.

On the recommendation of a friend who gave me her phone number, we contacted an Irish nun who’s been part of a devotional order in Fatima for years. We hoped to get an informal orientation to the area and the hundred-year old miracle of the three shepherd children. While she couldn’t take much time to talk to us herself, she arranged for someone to be our driver and guide for the day.

We left with an insider’s account of what happened. He actually knew relatives of Francisco and Jacinta, two of the three children involved, and sent us home with water bottles filled with holy water (from the pump he claimed to be connected to the original source rather than one of the newer pumps which he explained were installed to handle crowds of visiting pilgrims).

In Porto, tour operators from our day spent enjoying the Douro Valley scenery and wine tastings bent over backwards to return a camera left on their van before we had to leave town. A young couple we stopped to ask directions from actually walked us to the restaurant where we wanted to dine.

All along the way, we found people that were very kind to us.

It’s a great thing to remember (and easy to forget). People are basically kind.

People want to offer you their best. It’s a way to celebrate our shared humanity.

Being open to receiving help is no small thing.

From the Universe…with Love

thank-youl-bag1Like running through my pre-theater ritual — the one where I check all the compartments of my purse three times to make sure I have my tickets — right before I take my dog, India, out for her nightly walk, I perform a routine.

I put on her pink harness and watch her walk in a few tight circles in my living room before heading towards the door.

I check my front left pocket to make sure I have my house keys. Then I stuff my back right pocket with a plastic bag or two (usually saved from a grocery trip, or I take one of the New York Times sleeves a friend saves for me).

I make sure my cell phone is in my back left pocket. It’s equipped with the perfect flashlight, one with a narrow beam and adequate candlepower for supporting me in picking up the by-product of all the kibbles my pooch consumes.

Just the other night, I must have failed to complete my ritual. After going down the front stairs and hearing my building’s front door click locked behind me, I took a few steps along the parkway and realized my right back pocket was empty.

Oh no. I forgot poop bags!

India had already lowered herself near a familiar tree to pee and was eager to enjoy the rest of our walk and, honestly, I didn’t want to go back up to my place; to trudge back upstairs and get a bag.

But I don’t want to be an inconsiderate neighbor, either. I contemplated whether I could feel okay with myself if I was a little lax on my cleanup responsibilities in the moment and came back to the spot India decided to use as her toilet during tomorrow morning’s walk and clean up then.

Then I thought…

What if an unsuspecting person, walking through the grass en route to their front door, soiled their shoes?

I contemplated going to the back of my building where I park my car. Maybe I’d find an extra plastic bag in my trunk. I didn’t want to have to go back up the stairs. I just wanted a plastic bag.

As I turned the corner, thinking I might walk through my alley, to my parking spot and rummage through my car, my eyes focused on a dark brown object on a walkway leading up to an apartment building. I decided on a closer inspection.

It turned out to be a thin poly film shopping bag, the kind you’d see at a bookstore or card shop. It was beginning to split to the side of one handle, but, I decided, it could certainly scoop up a small load (one of the advantages of having a smallish dog) and be tied off securely before tossing it in a nearby garbage can.

I know that an argument could be made for not using bags made out of plastic, but just then, upon finding one in my path, I thought PERFECT.

As a I picked up the chocolate colored bag, I noticed a few words were printed on the front –- in pseudo-fancy script, in a cheap looking gold. It said, Thank You for Shopping With Us. The first words I saw were THANK YOU.

What were the odds — that I’d find the exact thing I was looking for only a few feet from holding this thought — and that object expressed the gratitude I felt?

My mind recalled examples of times when I experienced this phenomena; times when I found the exact change at the register while the checkout line waited behind me, or times when I made a recipe and had just enough flour or butter to make the recipe.

I marvel anytime I seem to have EXACTLY what is needed in a situation. (More often than not.)

I often want to SEE SIGNS, to imagine that my experiences reflect some greater force at work. Then sometimes, I’ll remember that the universe is always sending little gifts, little reminders of things to pay attention to.

Knowing that all events have meaning without attaching any undue significance to any single one is no small thing.

A World of Post-It Notes

oil-change-stickerThe other week, while I was adjusting my seat belt and situating myself in my car for driving on a series of short errands, I looked up at the top of my windshield.

I noticed a sticker, placed there to remind me when to change my oil.

I tried to make sense of the information. Did the mileage on the sticker represent my odometer reading when I got my last oil change or a suggestion on when I should schedule the procedure? I wondered the same thing about the date.

My current mileage was less than the number posted for the next service date, and the return date was so long ago, I had a hard time believing that the car hadn’t been taken in since last February.

As a work-at-homer, I just don’t put many miles on my car. I got the message that I was due to have the oil changed, the fluids topped off, and the tire pressure and air filters checked.

As I studied the clear and white sticker on my car’s glass, I thought about all the simple signs in my daily life that serve as reminders of something I need to do or some information I want to hold in my awareness.

  • The living room curtain billowing inward, softly rounded like a pregnant belly, informs me that the window is open and needs to be shut.
  • The rush of tiny bubbles up to the top of the plastic liter soda bottle as I make the first rotation of the cap, reminds me to let the container sit before twisting and removing the cap completely if I want to avoid a soaking.
  • The doorway flyer I read at my neighborhood library or café announcing a free lecture or performance by someone whose work I value encourages me to check my calendar and make plans for the event, allowing me to savor a pleasure close to home.
  • Unexpectedly hearing the date for a new friend’s birthday, prompting me to record the information in my birthday card file and enabling me to brighten their special day.
  • I always act on the urge to test a desk pen on a piece of scratch paper before packing it in my purse after recalling how ink failed to flow recently from a pen I grabbed from the same place (and still didn’t throw away).

When I think about it, paying attention to the little things feels like the world is tagged with Post-It Notes. I want to live my life as if I can see colored paper tags EVERYWHERE.

I try to give attention to little things; things I want to enjoy in the moment because they’re beautiful or rare or temporal. I constantly see signs to exercise caution or pay attention to bits of information that might enhance my life.

These little things, these Post-It Notes of life, can hold warnings or opportunities. They inform and enrich so many things.

Fully taking in what I notice around me, from conversations overheard at the bus stop to sale signs posted in a window of a boutique is no small thing.


Saying Goodbye

stained-glass2My good friend Lynne passed away this past weekend.

She used to hate it when an obituary led off with a reference to a person losing their battle with cancer. To her, this sounded like death was a moral failing of someone who didn’t try hard enough.

In Lynne’s case, there could be no accusation around lack of effort.

She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer maybe 15 years ago. (I believe the original diagnosis was Stage 3, but I am unsure of the exact diagnosis and the exact dates. I’ve lived with her living with the disease for so long, I can’t remember.)

According to expert oncologists, she wasn’t supposed to live as long as she did. The fact of her survival against the odds often confounded doctors. More than once, during a recap of a recent doctor visit, she confessed wanting to respond to their incredulity by saying, “Like should I apologize for not fitting your model?”

I could go on for days about things I admired in how she handled her situation from the medical standpoint: how she became her own expert and advocate (on treatment options and clinical trials); how she put up with crazy long-lines for regular tests at County Hospital (being uninsured for most of the time she had the disease, she had to get medical care through public aid); how she lived with an ostomy for the past two years.

I’ve also been amazed by how she took care of her spirit. So many people that she became close to died. (Once you’re in the survivor club, this is unavoidable.) I’m in awe of how she took care of her father over the last few months of his life and did her best to oversee the well-being of her husband and son.

Over her last year or so, she designated her living room couch and nearby end table as the Lynne Zone. In this space, she gave herself permission to come first; to not worry about the demands of her family, to read or watch reality TV or nap all day if she felt like it.

Maybe five weeks ago, she told me, she was not getting the desired results from the last treatment she tried and the doctors advised she had maybe two months left. She elected to go on home hospice and made the Lynne Zone the cornerstone of her operations.

For a few weeks, she welcomed visitors and attended to practical matters, filling a spiral notebook with instructions for her son including things like where to find computer files and what she wanted done with her ashes.

I came to visit her a couple times at her home. I was glad and also felt guilty by how NORMAL she kept things. It wasn’t a normal time. We didn’t avoid talking about her health but we didn’t make that the centerpiece of conversation.

I offered to do anything she thought of. She asked after my niece and my work. She was happy to hear I was planning a vacation for later in the fall.

I was hoping to visit her at home again when she stopped returning my calls. After four days, I left a note for her husband and son in their mail box, asking for an update.

She had been moved to the hospice wing at RUSH, a major medical center in town, where she could be monitored more closely.

I went to visit her there last Wednesday. Her twenty-something year old son was sort of camping out on a big chair by her bed. He shared how she commented on liking the stained glass window there when first settling in.

As he stood over her bed, he said, “Look who’s here? It’s Debbie.”

She looked so small, but she was breathing easily. Her hair was dark and recently combed. I think she would have liked that her nurses or the hospice staff paid attention to this.

Jeffrey explained that she was talking until recently and told me a little about the pain meds she was taking in. I touched her arm lightly.

I just whispered, I LOVE YOU. I don’t know that I could have said or done anything else.

I would like to think she heard me or was aware that I was in the room.

It is hard to see someone you care about not being as full of life as the picture you have of them, but it is a great privilege, an opportunity I’m very thankful for, that I was able to say Goodbye.

Telling someone you love them, even if you’re not sure they can hear you, is no small thing.

Better to Give

das_morgengebet_ii_s-_laboschin_1900Recently, I traveled for a family event; a young cousin’s Bar Mitzvah.

I don’t have a very close relationship with the Bar Mitzvah boy (haven’t seen him for years), but I have a very special fondness for his grandmother. Eight years ago, when I was trying to start a new life in a new town, Judy became my family.

Ten years younger than my mother, she welcomed me to her home for frequent meals. She was also a wealth of information on local doings. She was ready to offer advice on where I could take a Qigong class or where I could buy myself a nice arrangement of flowers when my mood needed elevating.

More importantly, she created a safe space for talking about difficult things.

We shared thoughts about writing and feelings about establishing roots and a sense of place in a new setting. A poet and scholar in her own right, she came to live in a Midwestern college town because of her husband’s teaching career.

She always displayed a great respect for tradition and a strong curiosity. She was a great storyteller and introduced me to many factoids about my mother’s family that I didn’t hear before. She also knew a lot about emerging writers and trends in art and music.

As I was preparing for my trip, I went through mental checklist of what I wanted to pack and bring with me.

Toothbrush –- check. Bar Mitzvah card – check. Cellphone charger – check. Pantyhose — check… (I wear stockings so seldom, I had to buy a pair for the occasion.)

…And while I was packing, the thought crossed my mind that I should comb my guest room closet for a piece of artwork I was storing there.

I dated an artist almost fifteen years ago. I lived with him for a few passionate but uncomfortably chaotic months. Before settling in Chicago, he defected from Romania and made his way west through Yugoslavia and Italy.

Somewhere in Europe during this time, he acquired a few pieces of artwork that were easy to roll up into tubes and travel with. One piece was an engraving on silk depicting a rabbi engrossed in his morning prayers, Das Morgengebet II.

He recognized the quality of workmanship in Siegfried Laboschin’s piece and, I think, had a romantic feeling for the subject. Though not Jewish himself, he thought of the Jewish families he grew up with as the intelligentsia of his country, a group, perhaps, he liked to consider himself belonging to.

Weeks after we split up (Befitting our relationship, getting him to clear out of my apartment was not a quiet affair), he wanted to gift me this engraving. Maybe he wanted to feel magnanimous after he caused so much turmoil. Or, maybe he thought it represented something positive for me to remember him by.

I liked the print and accepted the gift, but, because of my associations with the control and craziness he brought into my life, I couldn’t bring myself to hang it on my wall.

It sat in my closet for years, in a pillowcase, an old wooden frame barely holding the matted fabric engraving in place. From time to time, I wondered whether it was “worth” something – as in monetary worth. But I didn’t change my attitude about not wanting to display it in my home.

A year or so ago, I decided to re-frame it, as a good first step to pass it on to someone who would likely appreciate it. It remained in my closet, but now it was wrapped in bubble wrap, under museum quality glass with new sable brown frame.

As I was packing for Benji’s Bar Mitzvah, the thought just came into my head that I should give the piece to Judy. She was much more identified with the Jewish faith and was actually quite a scholar of Hebrew.

I printed a paragraph about the artist for her, a Polish Jew born in 1868 and trained in Germany. I gave her Das Morgengebet II when I shared Sabbath dinner with her and a handful of other family members from out of town the evening before the main event.

I wanted to believe she would find a place for it in her home and ENJOY it, but I decided that even if she didn’t hang it in her own hallway, she would act as a link in the chain -– getting the engraving to someone who would want to hang it and think of it as theirs.

I thought of the saying, It’s better to give than to receive. What makes this true, or at least feel true, most of the time?

I give away clothes periodically, but that’s largely about my own need to free up space. I don’t think of this process as gifting.

I give some money each year to causes I support. I think of this as more than a tax deduction but not up to the level of gifting.

There’s a special kind of satisfaction in giving something to someone who NEEDS that thing. That’s close to why it’s better to give (than receive), but there’s more to it.

The joy is not about having a surplus of what you’re giving away, or not needing something. The emphasis has to be on the GIVING and not on the AWAY part.

It’s better to give when you’re maximizing the energy of appreciation. It’s a joy to give something to someone who is genuinely grateful to have that thing in his or her life. Whether a gift is simply money given without strings, or something picked out especially for a person based on their preferences and values, it feels great to be the GIVER.

Giving with the intention of bringing something to someone who naturally appreciates the gift is no small thing.

Good Scents

blommer chocolate factoryOn most Sunday mornings, I travel to the west part of The Loop to attend a program at my meditation center. Setting aside time for meditating within a supportive group setting has proven to be very grounding — a great way to start my week.

Just across the river from the bustling business district of Chicago, the neighborhood was once home to lots of factories and warehouses, most of which have now closed, or re-located or re-purposed into loft-style offices and residences.

I was running a little late this past Sunday, and I was in a hurry to find a space in the parking lot and lock up. But after pulling in between the yellow lines and popping out of my car, I had to stop….

I was arrested by the smell of the Blommer Chocolate factory.

Both bitter and sweet, subtle, yet unmistakable, the scent of chocolate wafted down Chicago Avenue and the streets of River North. I found myself unable to do anything; to run or even point my car key back towards my Toyota and engage the lock. I couldn’t seem to do anything except breathe. Deeply.

This family operated business has been filling this light industrial area with the sweet smell of chocolate since 1939.

I love the smell. (There is no need to count calories for whiffs.) It’s sweet and spicy and sort of earthy. At times, maybe a little burnt.

I love thinking that this business and the actual location of the factory represents a bit of history. Amid expensive loft condos, something is still made behind Chicago brick factory walls.

And I love the way a powerful and pleasant smell can take you by surprise and bring you into the present moment like few other things can. When I first detect a special fragrance in the air, my impulse is to identify and label it. Oh, that’s chocolate, I’ll think.

Then, I’ll try to place myself in my surroundings relative to where I think the smell is originating. It must be coming from the Blommer Chocolate Factory. Let’s see, Kinzie Street is that way.

They say that two things can’t occupy the same space in your consciousness at the same time. When the aroma of chocolate moves into my head, that’s the only thing I seem to be able to think about, at least for a few seconds.

And all I want to do is BREATHE and hold it. Be with it.

I stood in the parking lot for a few seconds; a big grin on my face.

After a while, my brain kicked into gear making associations. Smells are so evocative, so powerful in stirring up memories.

I started thinking about other times I was in the neighborhood and knew where I was because a favorable wind brought the scent of Blommer’s to me.

I thought about other strong scents that defined a place or time; the smell of oil and garlic from the Chinese restaurant on Clark Street when I lived nearby, or the more than pungent smell of cinnamon candy, red hots, Ferrara Pan Candy Company turned out.

When I lived in Oak Park along the expressway and had to park almost two blocks from my apartment, the stingingly sweet and spicy smell seemed to guide me home after I put my car away for the night.

Ahhhh. AHHHHH……..

Being stopped in your tracks by a pleasant smell, taking it in fully, lingering — is no small thing.

Beneath the Windshield

windshieldI just came home from a whirlwind excursion.

I drove to Madison, Wisconsin for a family event. I left Friday afternoon and drove back Saturday afternoon.

It’s about 150 miles one-way. It can be driven in 2 ½ hours if you don’t encounter construction or traffic, but, as that’s pretty unlikely, it usually takes closer to three hours.

Ah, I considered having a good stretch of time behind the wheel, behind the windshield. Just the word itself makes you feel protected in your moving bubble. Like an Arthurian knight, all will be well behind your windshield.

I rarely take on an uninterrupted stretch of highway driving these days.

I helped a friend move to a new home in Arkansas some years ago (I drove 12 hours straight through). For four consecutive summers, I drove to a retreat in upstate New York, and I went on a couple fabulous Canadian driving vacations. One took me through the Canadian Rockies and the other through the Laurentian range.

The longest road trip I took was when I helped another friend move from Chicago to Sonoma, California. She hired professional movers for hauling furniture. Our main mission was to bring her German Shepard, Jack, and her husband’s BMW out there.

Jack was full of anxiety and shed hair like crazy as he curled up in a sort of hammock we arranged in the back seat. We drove for four days — through the flat lands of Nebraska, following the tumbling tumbleweed of Wyoming and silently praying to ourselves that the wind tunnel created to make a path through the Sierra Nevada didn’t suck us into some unknown vortex.

I have learned from past road trips that it’s good to bring some music. Being from a generation where that didn’t mean cueing up a mixed playlist from my smart phone, I had set aside a few CDs…But I forgot them.

Playing music and watching the world from my driver’s seat can provide a lot of pleasure. It’s represents quality ALONE TIME. I feel in control. Safe. Constantly entertained by the changing scenery all around me.

But I didn’t have my planned music with me. I decided to make friends with my car radio — just beneath my window to the world.

I was able to get a favorite FM station from Chicago until I caught sight of the Chrysler assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois. At over 5 million square feet, I reflected how workers there might be extra careful not to leave their cellphone or lunch in their cars, not having the time to go to the parking lot and retrieve them.

At this point, I pushed my index finger against the radio’s SEARCH button. I came up with a rock station (WXRX), which I listened to until static replaced the recognizable guitar riffs.

Between Belvidere and Madison (where there are plenty of music choices catering to state university students), I caught signals for Country (WXXQ) out of Freeport and Classic Rock from Sauk City, Wisconsin (WIBA). I even got signals from a Hip-Hop station out of Genoa, Illinois (WYRB). Who knew?

I was tickled by how my SEARCH button would lead me to music I wouldn’t know to look for. (I quickly moved on when I locked in to a religious station’s signal, and there are plenty of them across this country.)

I got a strange idea in my head. What if everyone was equipped with a sort of SEARCH button? I contemplated how wonderful it would be, when not consciously directed to something, if you could press a button and pick up compatible signals (people or jobs or activities) to engage with until you were aware of a passion to move towards.

I hadn’t reached Janesville yet, and I was laughing out loud, delighted by my own thoughts.

I looked through my windshield. I thought about the trucks and SUVs that had passed me miles ago that I was passing now. I noticed that the block of clouds that had been hanging over the highway had moved on. I smiled at how signs for different gas brands were built extra high so from a distance drivers could see them and plot out which exit they should take.

Recognizing that life itself and my imagination can provide an endless stream of ideas sparked a sort of contentment.

Believing in your own capacity to never get bored is no small thing.


grant wood paintingA few days ago, I went to Chicago’s main art museum. A friend, who is a member, had tickets for a lecture on Vanishing Beauty, a traveling exhibition that I wanted to see before it moved on.

I considered that Vanishing Beauty was a great name from a marketing standpoint. It sounded more romantic and compelling than the simple description that appeared in the show catalog’s subtitle, “Asian Jewelry and Ritual Objects…from Tibet to Indonesia.”

After the lecture (given by a youngish scholar; a pony-tailed thirty-something man who was in his geek glory), we walked through the exhibition.

We examined roughly cut chips of amber and turquoise embedded in silver. Ritual objects or simply wearable decorations, the descriptions on nearby walls seemed almost as compelling as the objects behind glass.

Somehow, knowing that a silver cape was worn in a traditional wedding ceremony or that a girl couldn’t wear an ear cuff in public until a certain age rendered them more beautiful.

After seeing every item on display, watching short videos on silversmithing in Tibet and reading every wall, my friend left for an appointment and I decided to visit other parts of the museum.

The ‘Tute (as in Art Institute) had another special exhibit, America after the Fall – Painting in the 1930s.

I had not given much thought to what constituted American art, but I indulged in a long walk through the featured gallery. Not yet modern, and certainly not frontier, I could see themes and styles stirring.

Some pieces revealed European influences and training, but what the young American artists chose to fill their canvases with was decidedly different. The Depression was a pivotal time in America and impacted young artists largely as regional experiences.

Georgia O’Keefe’s desert skulls seemed to speak of the struggle to survive in a not very hospitable world.

Some artists took on questions of the times directly in very political art. Migrant workers and other marginalized groups were common subjects, bringing their overlooked plights to cultural consciousness.

Colorfully caricature-ized Harlem nightlifers, dressed to the nines, danced their troubles away.

Edward Hopper and Grant Wood seemed to take a much more internal approach in their works. While very familiar with Hopper’s Nighthawks diner, I got a different dose of isolation in his depiction of a gas station (Gas, 1940).

The iconic roadside beacon was depicted in not quite daylight, not quite evening. It was situated on the edge of the highway and the edge of a forest where lines blurred and next steps are unclear. I imagined many felt this way living in the ’30s.

I was really taken with Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing. I really only knew him as the originator of the often satirized American Gothic where two stern-faced Midwesterners stood with their pitchfork in front of an Iowa farmhouse.

After imagining myself walking into the rolling hills in his idealized farm landscape, I read the curator’s blurb about the piece and followed up at home by Googling information on his farm paintings.

A university art department’s website described this series as a visual balm. The painting featured repetitive patterns, a landscape not populated by people, during times when life was not easy on the farm, yet there was something sensual and soothing about this landscape.

It conveyed a sort of optimism in ways I thought of as patently American.

I loved experiencing the art and allowing myself to feel whatever came up. Then I loved reading about what I saw. What critics thought the artist intended, what was happening in the world when something was created made me appreciate my feelings even more.

That some things belong with other things because they were born in same era, or hail from the same geography, or because they are the same hue or in the same musical key is a kind of beauty.

Things have a certain beauty when you can see how they fit together.

Giving something meaning by placing it in a historical or aesthetic context is no small thing.

Gray is the New Black

gray hairWhen not utterly scared by the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, it’s been pretty common to exchange quips or jokes about the Republican nominee overheard during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Recently, over breakfast, a friend asked me if I had seen Obama on a late night talk show. He was poking fun at The Donald and his famous not quite rust colored DO (as in hairdo) while referencing a TV show that’s been especially popular with millennials.

In a very serious tone, the 44th President of the United States said, as if to the candidate himself:


My friend and I smiled as we both recalled this TV moment. We were oddly happy about how the standing president can flash his own sense of humor, how the office itself has not taken him out of his humanity.

Almost automatically, I followed this replay of a scripted joke with an unplanned one, also referring to the same TV favorite.

Gray is the new black!

Our laughter became louder.

We both found ourselves caught up in the moment. We both appreciated the internal process of constructing a funny remark based on what was being presented in real time.

…And we both IDENTIFIED with the comment. We found ourselves laughing at ourselves. Maybe a clever critique or slice from the sarcasm pie can elicit a chuckle, but the deepest laughter seems to come from personally recognizing being both the subject and the audience for the joke.

Both of us are around sixty. Both of us are into new art and music and consider ourselves pretty WITH IT.

We both want to be seen as youthful without appearing that we’re trying too hard to cop this look.

I don’t dye my hair, but, as I see more gray hairs take up real estate in my scalp, the thought is often in my mind. Should I (color it)? I don’t want to look old.

I have to laugh at myself. My vanity. My insecurity. Why should I care about whether people think I look young or old?

I don’t want anyone to make assumptions about me. I never liked the idea that people projected how I should act based on gender or ethnic group or career.

I certainly don’t want to think anyone expects me to behave a certain way based on how old they think I am.

Sounds like a valid concern, but I tell myself this shouldn’t occupy too much space in my mind. If someone makes any assumptions based on my having gray hair, it reveals more of a limitation of theirs than a flaw of mine.

But a residue of insecurity remains, I guess. I want others to see me in a positive light.

Then I think about being in good company. There are plenty of people that do battle with their psyches over how they see themselves and what their birth certificates tell them.

I think about baby boomers being courted by television advertisers. Generally tested as having high disposable income and a track record of brand loyalty, I’ll see stylish women and men in commercials promoting anything from ED remedies to credit cards to informal dinners at Outback Steakhouse.

We’re a formidable group. Even in a youth-oriented culture, we wield too much purchasing power to be ignored.

This thought makes me laugh a little longer; that I’m in such good company, that other people my age are simultaneously optimistic about their stage in life and worried about how others see them.

Being able to laugh at yourself, along with others who have the same indomitable qualities and the same insecurities, is no small thing.